Individual Differences in Readers’ Narrative Experiences

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Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 2,683 words

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[(essay date 2011) In the following essay, Gerrig analyzes differences in readers’ responses to plot elements in Transmission.]

In the novel Transmission, Hari Kunzru (2004) weaves together several strands of narrative. One plot involves a character named Guy Swift who, amid other personal crises, has concluded that his live-in girlfriend, Gabriella, is poised to leave him. In one portion of the novel, Guy devises a plan to forestall that outcome: He will buy Gabriella a gift. The episode, titled “Gift,” begins with these sentences: “It had to be impressive. Impressive was the only way” (p. 208). There are a range of theories of text processing that would shed light on the cognitive processes engaged by this pair of sentences (for a review, see McNamara & Magliano, 2009). However, those theories do not fully capture how swiftly and casually readers’ experience of these sentences and the entire episode typically diverge. For example, some readers may wholly agree with the sentiment, “Impressive was the only way.” Other readers may strenuously disagree whereas others may remain neutral. Individual readers’ responses to Guy’s plan will quite likely affect their representations of this whole portion of the novel. In this article, I suggest that researchers on literature should turn increasing attention toward rigorous analyses of such individual differences.

Extant theories are not entirely silent on the issue of readers’ diverse experiences. As I shall explain, knowledge differences among readers have figured in theoretical analyses throughout the study of text processing. In addition, researchers have examined the consequences both of differences in readers’ comprehension skill (e.g., high vs. low skill) and differences in readers’ goals (e.g., reading for tests vs. reading for pleasure) (for a review, see McNamara & Magliano, 2009). My purpose in this article is to provide a more fine-grained analysis of the types of individual differences that emerge based on readers’ particular life experiences. I discuss readers’ knowledge and their participatory responses. I use the “Gift” episode from Transmission to illustrate my analysis.

The Impact of Readers’ Knowledge

Theorists of narrative processing have long recognized that differences in readers’ knowledge affects their text understanding (e.g., Fincher-Kiefer, Post, Greene, & Voss, 1988; Griffin, Jee, & Wiley, 2009; Spilich, Vesonder, Chiesi, & Voss, 1979). One classic study, for example, contrasted the performance of participants high and low on baseball knowledge who listened to an account of a segment from a fictional baseball game (Spilich et al., 1979). Participants who were high in baseball knowledge recalled more information than their less informed peers. In particular, high knowledge individuals were better able to recall facts that were relevant to the game’s outcome (such as how runners advanced); low knowledge individuals only showed an advantage for unimportant information such as players’ names. Research in this tradition firmly established the consequences of readers’ particular domain knowledge. Against that background, I wish to outline some nuances of incorporating differences in reader knowledge into theories of comprehension.

The episode from Transmission provides an instance in which readers’ domain knowledge will almost...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100123818